Making Public History, Past and Present

Jennifer WingateThis is a guest blog post in the First World War Centenary series, written by Jennifer Wingate, Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at St. Francis College, USA and author of Sculpting Doughboys (Ashgate, 2013)

The 100th anniversary of World War I coincides with the launching of newly digitized resources that inspire fresh scholarly insights and revisions of the historical narrative.  That same technology also invites the public to contemplate the history of the First World War.  This contemporary public engagement with history parallels that which took place after 1918 when civic groups took it upon themselves to raise money for local memorials.  The U.S. government focused on designing cemeteries abroad, so tributes on home soil were grass roots affairs.  Today, with smartphones acting as extensions of our physical selves, we can take snapshots of local memorials erected almost one hundred years ago, and upload them onto photo sharing sites where they can be categorized by keyword and easily sought out by interested individuals across the country and beyond.

WW1 memorial tree plaque

A memorial tree plaque embedded in the pavement of downtown Brooklyn, walked over daily by thousands of commuters, can reside side by side, in the virtual realm, with a relief stele in Canton, Illinois, a fighting soldier sculpture in the Alliance, Ohio, cemetery, and a neoclassical band shell that serves as the Washington, D.C., World War I Memorial in the nation’s capital (try searching social media sites for #WWI and #memorials).

Doughboy sculpture, Ohio  District of Columbia WW1 Memorial

This is the era of the digital database, and an impressive one called the World War I Memorial Inventory Project is in the works.

If we take the time to look carefully at these sculptures (it was the sculptural memorials that were the focus of my book), we can learn about the nineteen twenties when most World War I memorials were dedicated.  While some are elegant and understated, others are cartoonish looking to twenty-first-century eyes.  Why?  What can these sculptures tell us about women’s roles in the war?  About masculinity in the interwar period?  About African-American soldiers?  About the sculptors who made them?  Or the communities who dedicated them?

These are just some of the questions I tried to answer in my book.  Encouraging students and community members to go out and document and ask questions about this neglected history of community-generated commemoration can enrich the conversation about World War I memory and, ultimately, about how history is made.

Sculpting DoughboysSculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender, and Taste in America’s World War I Memorials shows why sculptures of ‘doughboys’ (US soldiers during World War I) were in such demand during the 1920s, and how their functions and meanings have evolved. Wingate recovers and interprets the circumstances of the doughboy sculptures’ creation, and offers a new perspective on the complex culture of interwar America and on present-day commemorative practices.

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